NATURE VS. ART: A NOTE ON TRANSLATING SHKLOVSKY
by Benjamin Sher
Translator of Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose
“And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs…”
There are two current translations of this key passage from Shklovsky’s masterpiece, one in Lemon and Reis’s Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (p.4), which includes the opening chapter from Theory and the other in my complete translation of Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose (p.6).
The reader may wonder which version is “closer” to the original text, Lemon and Reis’s or mine. Well, the answer is: neither one. After looking at the passage carefully and retracing my mental steps, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that neither Lemon and Reis nor I are in actual fact close to the text.
Because this excerpt, at least, cannot be translated head-on. It can only be approached through the back door of “interpretation.” It is a veritable quagmire of elusive, shifting terminology.
There is only one way to translate a passage like this one and that is by interpreting it in terms of the translator’s implicit schema or set of preconceptions. Here is a literal translation of the passage in question:
And so, in order to return the sensation of life, to feel things, in order to make a stone stony, [for this reason] exists what is called art. The purpose of art is to give the sensation of a thing as sight and not as recognition [sic]. The device of “enstranging” [in quotes] things and the device of making form difficult, of increasing the difficulty and duration of perception is the device of art. The perceptual process in art is an end in itself and ought to be extended. Art is a means of experiencing the making of a thing, while that which has [already] been made is not important in art.
[I vot dlya togo, shtoby vernut' oshchushchenie zhizni, pochuvstvovat' veshchi, dlya togo, shtoby delat' kamen' kamennym, sushchestvuyet to, shto nazyvayetsya iskusstvom. Tsel'yu iskusstva yavlyaetsya dat' oshchushchenie veshchi kak videnie, a nye kak uznavanie; priyomom iskusstva yavlayetsya priyom "ostraneniya" veshchei i priyom zatrudnyonnoi formi, uvelichivayushchii trudnost' i dolgotu vospriyatiya, tak kak vosprinimatel'nyi protsess v iskusstve samotselen i dolzhen byt' prodlyon. Iskusstvo yest' sposob perezhit' delan'e veshchi, a sdelannoye v iskusstve nye vazhno.]
(Shklovsky, O teorii prozy, p. 13)
The result, I submit, is like the piano score (or piano reduction) of a symphony. The instruments must still be added. In his orchestration, each translator shapes, “distorts” both the form and content of the original in accordance with his own artistic vision and schema. Without this act of interpretation, we would be left with only the bald text.
This paragraph ends with a juxtaposition built on the basic, everyday verb delat’ (“to make”, also “to do”). Shklovsky first speaks (using the gerund) of the “making of a thing” (literal translation) and then opposes to it (in a past participle used as a substantive) the completed thing itself: “That which has been made is not important in art.” [In Russian this distinction is further reinforced by the pointed aspectual opposition between the imperfective gerund delanie and the perfective past participle sdelannoye.]
Shklovsky’s crucial distinction is expressed simply, perhaps too simply. The effect is startlingly direct, as startling as if we came upon a homespun aphorism in the conclusion of a treatise on aesthetics.
Startling? Perhaps in Russian, but not necessarily in English.
As is often the case, the “wisdom” of this aphorism doesn’t translate too well. It comes across more as cute than as “wise.” It teases rather than resolves.
Here are the two interpretations in question:
Lemon and Reis:
. . . art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar”, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.
And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By “enstranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious”. The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant.
Here is a brief list of the interpretive choices made in this passage by both Lemon and Reis and Sher.
Lemon and Reis:
“sensation … perceived,” “known”, “aesthetic end”, “… artfulness of an object”. “The object…”
["recover" and "impart" are pleonastic, i.e. they are used for reasons of style, not content]
“feel”, “process of creativity,” “artifact”.
["Limbs", "tool" and "organ" are pleonastic, i.e. they are used for reasons of style, not content.].
Nowhere in the original text does Shklovsky, strictly speaking, refer to an “object” as such (“predmet”). Instead, he uses the general word “thing” (“veshch’”) in line 1 and in the critical, italicized last line: “the making of a thing“. I mention this because, in their translation, Lemon and Reis render both “veshch’” (thing) and “That which has been made” as “object” (twice in the same sentence!) when, in fact, neither Russian word really means that.
Yet, Lemon and Reis are not only right but duty-bound to “interpret” their text. They do so in terms of their schema of perception. Their reading brings out Shklovsky’s dichotomy: perception in general vs. formulaic knowledge.
Of course, “object” in some sense is implied here. But what kind of object?
An object of ordinary perception (nature)?
An object of investigation (science)?
An object of creativity (art)?
“And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs… to make a stone feel stony…” is a compromise.
Lemon and Reis’s “to make a stone stony”, though technically correct, is very misleading, especially when taken out of context. This is because it implies that it is the stone and not the perceiver that serves as the epistemological center of the relationship. That this is not so is obvious from the enstrangement context (“… to feel things…,” etc.) On the other hand, “to make us feel the stone” is too subjective and therefore no less unacceptable [see "... to make us feel things..." above]
The intransitive construction “to make the stone feel stony” seems a fitting solution to this problem.
So, while Lemon and Reis’s bias is clearly in favor of general perception (“object” as nature/science), my framework tends rather to emphasize the artistic context (object as artifact).
Therefore: “Art is the means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant.”
This artistic bias is dictated by Shklovsky’s theme of enstrangement in the first chapter of Theory. That is, his interest in objects of perception (nature/science) seems overshadowed, in the final analysis, by his interest in the objects of art. We see a special illustration of this in Tolstoy’s enstrangement of opera in the excerpt from War and Peace on p. 8 of Theory and in folk tales in general, where the telling is far more important than the oft-repeated tale.
In a sense, this artistic enstrangement applies to most of Shklovsky’s examples. Even when seemingly in the foreground, the reader’s perception of the world (as distinguished from the perception of the fictional characters) takes place within the larger context of aesthetic contemplation (of the novel, play, etc.)
For example, in “Kholstomer” Tolstoy enstranges the burial of the dead by describing the decomposing body of Serpukhovsky in painfully realistic detail:
Nevertheless, the dying who buried the dead had found it necessary to dress up this bloated body, which was about to rot, in a dress uniform and to lower him, with his good boots on, into a fine coffin adorned with new tassels at the four corners. They then put this new coffin into another coffin made of lead, took it to Moscow, where they dug up ancient human bones and buried this body infested with worms in its new uniform and polished boots. They then poured earth all over his coffin. (Theory, p. 8)
Clearly, we perceive the ritual of burial in an unexpectedly vivid way. However, this act of ordinary perception takes place in an extraordinary context: that is, in a work of art, where the act of perception is incorporated into an aesthetic framework fundamentally different from that of nature or science. This brings us back to Shklovsky’s fascination with folk tales. Like them, works of literature are, in the final analysis, read (and reread) less because of what we perceive of the world in them (we know the content — and the form! — already) than because of the pleasure we feel in experiencing them over and over again. Thus, the stench of the decomposing body becomes, ironically, an aesthetic pleasure. Yeats’ famous line from “Lapis Lazuli” comes inescapably to mind:
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
While Shklovsky’s main concern in Theory of Prose is clearly with the primacy of form, here, in the context of enstrangement, he brings the “telling” of the tale, i.e. the creative process, to the fore.
Shklovsky’s “object”, therefore, may be more appropriately considered an artifact than an object of mere perception.
Knowledge of objects as perception is mediated in Shklovsky, I believe, by knowledge of objects as art.
Not surprising when you consider that Shklovsky was, after all, a literary critic and not a scientist.
“… knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition”.
Compare Shklovsky’s original: “to give the sensation of a thing through sight instead of through recognition” [sic].
How do you sense a thing through “recognition”, may I ask?
Lemon and Reis were apparently guided by their schema of ordinary perception in interpreting Shklovsky’s “oshchushchenie” here in the limited sense of mere “sensation” (its narrow, scientific meaning), when the text demands the broader meaning of “feeling” or “experience” (as in the compound word “mirooshchushchenie” (literally, “the way one feels about the world”).
From the narrow natural/scientific “sensation” it is only a short step to the vague and misleading “known”: “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” I’m sorry, but the text demands “recognition”! Even Shklovsky’s original text above demands it.
Finally, I believe that Lemon and Reis’s “artfulness” (an apparent or near tautology in their translation above: “Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness . . . “) is a probable misreading of delan’e, which I take to be a possible misprint or variant for delanie [an "i" instead of the soft sign]. The soft sign of such verbal nouns is often used to designate an object as opposed to a real gerund indicating action, e.g. voskresen’e [Sunday] but voskresenie [resurrection], siden’e [a seat] instead of sidenie [seating], vyazan’e [knitting as an object) and vyazanie [act of knitting], varen’e [preserves] but varenie [the making of preserves], etc.
I may be wrong, but I cannot imagine that Shklovsky, in the context of enstrangement (ostranenie, itself a verbal noun, that is, the act of enstranging) would ever speak of “experiencing a made thing” ["delan'e," a substantive]. All the more so when he immediately proceeds to contrast it with another substantive, namely “sdelannoye” [a made thing]. The result would be nonsensical.
No, my conjecture is that delan’e means delanie, that is, a verbal noun form of delat’ [to make].
Thus, Shklovsky’s text, as I see it, should read: “experiencing the making of a thing” in sharp contrast to “the thing made” in the concluding sentence:
Art is a means of experiencing the making of a thing, while that which has [already] been made is not important in art.
That is what enstrangement (ostranenie) is all about: Seeing a thing in a new way, that is, perceiving it as process, as a thing-in-the-making. Therefore, when “interpreted” within the framework of Shklovsky’s artistic world-view, we have my rendering above (Shklovsky, p.6):
. . . The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant.
Lemon and Reis may have also been led astray by the related but conflicting “delanno” (“artificial”). It just happens that “artful” has in addition to the meanings above an archaic sense of — you guessed it — “artificial.”
Be that as it may, Shklovsky’s enstrangement, i.e. his contrast between what is being made and what has already been made (whether understood perceptually or artistically) clearly demands a reading of the dynamic delanie (making). Finally, the aestheticist intrusion of “artfulness” into Lemon and Reis’s fundamentally natural/scientific context seems rather odd.
So, who is right? Is there a core, an irreducible something, which it is the task of translators to isolate, extract, wrap, label and “sell”?
A translator does not peel off (or add) layers that conceal. He does not peel off anything as such. Instead, he rearranges. And, in rearranging, he transforms both content and form in accordance with a design, a schema, a pattern, that, however fluid and tentative, is the only guarantee of meaning (any kind of meaning) in the translated work.
The gravitational center of a translation, I believe, is to be found less in the coded text than in the decoding translator himself.
While this subjectivity haunts the translator under more normal conditions, there are times when it moves from the periphery of his concerns and consciousness to center stage. This is one such case.
Translators are artists who “enstrange” the distorted devices of the source language into the distorting devices of the target language.
A volume could be written about translating this passage alone. Amen!